Study Says White Police Officers Are Not More Likely to Fatally Shoot Black People

Study Says White Police Officers Are Not More Likely to Fatally Shoot Black People July 28, 2019

Photo by Roman Koester on Unsplash

A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) says that White police officers are not more likely to fatally shoot Black people.

Johnson, Tress, Burkel, Taylor, and Cesario focused specifically on fatal officer-involved shootings (FOIS), not the outcomes of police officers who fire their weapons and miss or injure civilians.

The investigators drew from 2015 FOIS information collected by The Washington Post and The Guardian in order to create a database that included officer race, sex, and years of professional experience.

They found that White, Black, and Hispanic people were more likely to be shot by same-race police officers. The researchers attributed this phenomenon to mostly similarities between officer and county demographics.

Also, they discovered that the higher the occurrences of violence from one particular racial group increased the likelihood of FOIS within this racial group.

That is, as the proportion of violent crimes committed by Black people increased, the more likely a Black person was fatally shot by police officers. The same applied to White and Hispanic civilians. The more violence committed by White people in an area, the more likely a White person was fatally shot by police officers.


The study pointed to depolicing and civilian reactions to police as possible explanations behind their findings.

Depolicing occurs when police officers scale back from being proactive in their work duties due to concerns about legal and public backlash. They tend to stick to the job description and play it safe.

According to Johnson and colleagues, “The disparities in our data are consistent with selective depolicing, where officers are less likely to fatally shoot Black civilians for fear of public and legal reprisals.”

Another explanation provided by the researchers is that White civilians may react differently toward police officers in crime-related situations. Among those fatally shot by police, White people are more likely than Black people to be armed and pose a threat.

They are seven times more likely to commit “suicide by cop” where they intentionally threaten police officers in order to be fatally shot. The researchers commented that unarmed Black individuals who pose no immediate threat are still more likely to be fatally shot by police.

As with most research, this study provided useful insight to one aspect of a multi-layered and often contentious issue. I think the research adds to the conversation about institutional racism, biases, policing, and criminal justice reform. The researchers did not investigate same-race bias, police harassment, brutality, racial profiling, corruption, as well as racial disparities in laws and criminal sentencing.

In Conversation with Other Information

I encourage placing this study in conversation with other studies/information. We can take the findings from this study and the growing information about criminal justice to drive more informed discussions and inquiry. Examples of additional information to include:

  • Plain View Project created a database of over 5000 Facebook posts and comments from police officers from eight U.S. jurisdictions that “could undermine public trust and confidence in police.”
  • In their recent study published in the Journal of the National Medical Association, Seigel, Sherman, Li, and Knopov found that “racial residential segregation is a strong predictor of differences between cities in the magnitude of the racial disparity in fatal police shootings.”
  • In addition to making up about 6% of the population yet 25% of fatalities by police, Black men accounted for 33% of those who had killed police officers.
  • At the time of this writing, Erin Donahue reported that the New York City Police Department (NYPD) had not substantiated any of the 2,495 complaints of biased policing since they began tracking them in 2014. By 2018, almost 2000 of the investigations had been closed. The New York City Department of Investigation reviewed 888 of these biased policing complaints and found deficiencies in NYPD’s tracking and investigation.

Because all of us have biases, remembering to look at disconfirming information is an effective practice to help monitor our subjective influence. Similarly, drawing from multiple sources that use a variety of methods can help make better sense of larger complex societal issues.

I contend that compiling as much information as possible, from stories to statistics, can better help civilians and law enforcement officers take more personal, community, and professional responsibility.

It can move us toward positive solutions, even if some of us feel uncomfortable taking an honest and more nuanced look at what is happening in our society and local communities.

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